This Week in Electionland: The press smells blood

If you read the political news recently, even a little bit, you’ll know that Stephen Harper had a bad week.

rabble went so far as to call it a “very bad, very ugly week“. Michael Harris at iPolitics dubbed it “the week that Stephen Harper lost the benefit of the doubt”. Maclean’s said it was the worst of the campaign for Harper and that the PM is now “seeking shelter” from the barrage of bad news. I’ll let Maclean’s sum up the damage:

The news of the week included a candidate who urinated in a stranger’s coffee mug, a candidate who impersonated a mentally disabled individual as part of a prank call, recent suggestions of turmoil within the leadership of the Conservative campaign and one anonymous Conservative’s subsequent assertion that someone was “obviously trying to f— us”, and, of course, the Syrian refugee crisis, a matter that, beyond serious questions of principle and policy, has had cabinet ministers complaining about media coverage (first, Chris Alexander’s unfortunate attempt to accuse the CBC of ignoring the issue, then, Jason Kenney’s admonition that the media was ignoring the government’s good work), campaign staff shielding another cabinet minister from reporters’ questions and a Conservative candidate’s spouse heckling a reporter’s attempt to enquire further of the Prime Minister. And before this week there had already been the trial of Mike Duffy—with its myriad of revelations and questions raised—and the official declaration of a recession.

Indeed, it really was one piece of bad news after another for the Conservative campaign this week – and the sharks in the press smelled blood.

It’s long been evident that the media elites in this country have it in for this Prime Minister. Hell, even the Sun called for his resignation at the height of the Duffy scandal in 2013. So it’s no surprise that they’re pouncing with all their might now, when they feel Harper is most vulnerable.

When I use the phrase “media elites” I feel a little bit like an Alex Jones-er, one of the Illuminati-obsessors, or even just a regular old Canadian Conservative supporter. It gives me a bit of an icky feeling.

But let’s be real here – our mainstream media in this country is dominated by a handful of extremely wealthy people who aren’t just in it for the chuckles. When, across the board, you see reporters and editorialists joining the pile-on and saying that Harper’s time has come, that he’s really fucked up this time, that the Conservative campaign is on a fast train to Nowheresville, then you gotta know that the big boys at the top are done with Steve-O.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

The Globe and Mail’s Tabitha Southey relished her take-down of the PM’s terrible offerings on the refugee crisis:

What we were hearing there from our PM was a convenient conflating of immigrants with refugees, one that’s popular with Conservative politicians just now…

Mr. Harper compounded this by confusing Canada being first even in the generous and not entirely relevant category of new arrivals per capita with us being 24th. This level of numerical literacy does not inspire much faith in him as the steward of the economy his party claims him to be…

It’s difficult to imagine a more tone-deaf response than the one Canadians have been offered, and we’re not really that difficult to please…

Then, when for reasons known only to himself and his producers, CBC-TV’s Peter Mansbridge interviewed each of the party leaders this week one-on-one outdoors in different woodsy locations (it was a bit like watching the world’s worst fishing show), Mr. Harper said: “I’m not perfect, but…”

We are, it feels, mere days away from being offered “Stephen Harper, the devil you know,” as a campaign slogan.

Which, while supremely snarky, is not an inaccurate assessment. I mean, look at what Harper actually had to say about his opponents this week:

“The opposition is worse than wrong, however, on these things. Their views reflect a deep hostility to [small] business.”

If there’s any sacred cow in Canadian politics, it’s the Small Business Owners. They (and the Blessed Middle Class) are the economic equivalent of cute l’il puppy dogs with big cute eyes making those heart-melting whimpering noises that’ll melt just about anybody’s heart [redundancy sic]. To accuse the Liberals and NDP of being hostile towards small businesses is like accusing them to be, I dunno, ISIS sympathizers or foreign citizens with dubious loyalty or something outrageous like that.

Meanwhile, over at the Toronto Star, the editorial board was in full finger-wagging mode…

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper can’t be faulted for trying to reboot his struggling campaign at the halfway point in this election campaign. There’s a whiff of desperation in the Tory camp.

But at a time when Canadian hearts are being tugged by the plight of Syrian refugees, his bid to pivot the national conversation back onto the Fear Factor subject of Islamist terrorism seems obstinately disconnected from reality…

The picture that emerges, mid-campaign, is of a Conservative party in panic mode that has been too long in office and has lost touch with the people.

Harper’s mantra — that he may not be perfect but only his Tories can provide the security and economic leadership that the country needs – has a tinny ring to it. Canadians know that the terror threat, however real, has been cynically exaggerated and exploited by this government. And that its economic stewardship has been mediocre at best.

The Sun chain of newspapers has “loyally” stuck by the PM, defending his tortured positions on the refugee crisis if they give the issue any attention at all. But their owners over at the National Post seem a lot more skeptical of Harper’s latest efforts:

Well, 5½ weeks to go. Lots of time for the Conservatives to turn this around. A full campaign, by the usual yardstick. Except it’s hard to see what’s likely to change. If the Tories were capable of a barn-storming campaign full of zest and urgency, they would not have pursued the kind of leaden, inert campaign they have until now.

There was no inevitability to any of this. I do not hold with the notion that governments die of old age, that after 10 years or so they simply wear themselves out. To be sure, the longer a government is in power, the more it will tend to fall in upon itself, listening only to what pleases it, unable to see how it is perceived by those outside the tribe. But those tendencies have been with this government from the beginning.

To that extent, the party’s current woes were foreordained. What once were its strengths, in a narrow partisan sense — fierce loyalty, swaggering self-confidence, calculation and ruthlessness in equal measure — have in present circumstances become liabilities. But it has made things much worse for itself in this sour, sullen, strangely passive campaign.

What actual reason are the Tories giving people to vote for them? What is the proposition they are laying before the public, other than, as in the Hilaire Belloc poem, “to always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse”? Can anyone recall what their platform consists of, besides a recitation of their thin record and a few well-placed bribes to this or that micro-demographic?

Ouch! That’s gotta sting.

The problem with the image that the media is painting of the Harper campaign being in free-fall, desperately flailing about for a successful strategy, is that it’s undermined by the actual data.

The most recently released polls show the Conservative Party within spitting distance of the lead nationally. And while they certainly didn’t want to be mired in a three-way tie at this point in the campaign, there’s no solid evidence to show that their numbers are on the decline. If anything, they’re slightly up over the past week and a half.

(While we’re on the subject of the ThreeHundredEight meta-poll analysis, check out this wicked interactive riding-by-riding map showing the latest projections, which was put together by friend of the blog Stephen McMurtry.)

Now, there’s a few potential explanations for this.

One is that the polls haven’t yet caught up with the reality on the ground. There’s always some delay between an event and its traceable pollable impact. Maybe Stephen Harper’s bad week this past week will turn into a week of awful polling results in the week to come.

Secondly, maybe the polls are wrong. It sure as hell wouldn’t be the first time. Ontario last year, Quebec in 2012, Alberta in 2012 (in a big bad way), BC in 2013 – there’s no shortage of examples where numerous well-funded polls were just plain wrong. The possibility is far too real to be dismissed, and I don’t think that anybody who’s actually considering voting strategically (please don’t!) should rely on polls to tell them which party is likely to win.

The third possibility – and the one that I think is most likely – is that Conservative supporters by and large don’t give a shit what kind of week Harper had.

Harper himself alluded to this in comments he made at a rally this week, as reported in Maclean’s:

“In fact, friends, just a little bit of news on that front,” the Prime Minister said about seven minutes into his presentation, segueing from some boasting about the budget being balanced, which maybe it will even turn out to be, “because I’m not sure you actually hear any real news.”The Prime Minister waved his hands about a bit at this mention of real news. There was laughter from the assembled, then applause. The Prime Minister managed what could either be described as a wry smile or a smirk. This line apparently wasn’t new, but I am told by someone who has heard it before that it was delivered with more “vim” this time.

If this kind of attitude – “those media elites in Toronto are out to get him, but we know he’s got our backs!” – is widespread, then the sustained barrage of snarky, condescending criticism being levelled by the press against Stephen Harper in an effort to push his numbers down could actually wind up backfiring by making his base double down and get defensive of their Dear Leader.

And the Conservative base is about to get all the red meat it can eat in the weeks to come. With the arrival of arch-racist international electoral wizard Lynton Crosby (described by the Globe and Mail as the Master of  Dark Arts), who will bring his special brand of dog-whistling and just-barely-(and-inexplicably-)publicly-acceptable immigrant bashing to the table, people can expect to be barraged with fear-mongering and intimidation in the closing half of this campaign. While that prospect may not excite you, enough serious people in suits think that it could turn things around for the Conservative Party that Harper and Co. have gone all-in on the proposition. And hell, it worked for David Cameron, didn’t it? (Yet another example of pollsters getting it totally wrong, btw.)

(And while I shouldn’t have to say it, I will: that I even have to be worried about the behaviour of Harper’s loyal defenders and how it might influence the composition of the next Parliament is a scathing indictment not just of this election, but of electoral democracy itself.)

There was a lot of other electioneering this week, of course, but very little of it merits any attention. I addressed the to-do surrounding Mulcair’s position on pulling out of Iraq and Syria in Friday’s post, which is well worth a read, if I do say so myself. As for the announcements of funding for lobster fishermen, or even grandiose election pledges of massive funding for transit, it’s all just background noise, attempts to win the news cycle or even dominate the Twitter conversation for a few hours, or, in many cases, to appeal to a few key voting blocks in a few key ridings.

But there was one story which seemed so damn odd that I couldn’t resist commenting.

I’m referring to Jean Chrétien’s unlikely return to the campaign trail.

The Liberals rolled out the still-shuffling Paul Martin a few weeks back in what at the time I thought was a bizarre spectacle full of illogical reasoning and a gross erasure of history.

Now Chrétien is back replaying the great political battle of his heyday – the issue of separatism.

Why the Liberals think they’ve found a magic bullet in the question of the Clarity Act is beyond me. The once-mighty Bloc Québecois is unlikely to win a single seat in this year’s election, the PQ (now led by media elite Pierre Karl Péladeau!) is flailing desperately and in unlikely to return to government any time soon, and support for independence, though it briefly spiked after the death of Jacques Parizeau, has long been on the wane. There quite simply is no immediate menace from the sovereigntists.

Additionally, the Liberal position on this question is incoherent. While they oppose Mulcair and the NDP’s plan to repeal the so-called “Clarity” Act and replace it with actually clear legislation identifying a 50%-plus-one-vote result in favour of independence to be sufficient to begin negotiations on separation, they refuse to clarify their supposedly “clear” position on the issue by putting an actual number to things. Moreover, the 50%+ rule is the norm internationally – it’s the rule that was in effect for the Scottish referendum last year – and is more immediately and intuitively understandable.

So it’s beyond bizarre to see the old battlehorse Chrétien back out there trying to get folks riled up about the spectre of Quebec nationalism yet again:

“It is completely irresponsible,” Chrétien said today, addressing voters in a region where most seats belong to either the NDP or Conservatives.

It was unclear to many why the Liberals chose to bring up the issue at this point in the electoral race.

“[Mulcair] says I’m talking about problems that don’t exist, but I’m not the one who rose it first,” Chrétien said…

Mulcair brushed off the criticism earlier in the day, accusing Chrétien of “trying to revive the quarrels of the past because he sees a political advantage.”

“I’ll let Justin Trudeau continue with his golden oldies tour,” he said in Vancouver. “We’re talking about solving the problems for the future.”

Oooooh burnnnn! Shots fired!!!!

What this whole contrived controversy over the Clarity Act shows, at least as far as I can see, is that Trudeau and the Liberals are desperate for a wedge issue that will differentiate them from the NDP. As we saw in the awful leader interviews with Peter Mansbridge this week, Trudeau is leaning heavily on his plan for deficit spending as the defining difference between the parties – going so far as to repeatedly label the NDP a party of austerity. Which is true enough as far as it goes – but it doesn’t stick very well with the idea most people have of the Dippers being free-spending socialists. (It certainly doesn’t have the same ring of truthiness to it as the NDP’s charge that the Liberals are unprincipled opportunistic flip-floppers – which is maybe why so many Liberals reacted so touchily to Olivia Chow’s comments yesterday.)

The Liberal brain-trust, such as it is, felt compelled to go back to the well for something else, some other difference to point to, and came up with nothing but this tired old culture war that died down twenty years ago and has shown little sign of life as of late. And so they sent Jean Chretien down to drag the bloated corpse of Quebec separatism out of the St Lawrence River, put lipstick on it, and pretend that it still appeals to somebody, in a desperate attempt to show that there’s at least some policy difference between the Liberals and the NDP.

Or, in other words, there ain’t that much separating the NDP and the Liberals policy wise. At. All.

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